By Armen Zakarian and Hrach Melkumian
A senior U.S. diplomat reiterated on Thursday his criticism of the Armenian authorities’ decision to pull the plug on the independent A1+ television, echoing concerns about freedom of speech in the country. In an interview with RFE/RL, U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Ordway said the effective closure of the popular channel could cloud prospects for Armenia's democratization.
“I don’t think that our position has changed the slightest,” Ordway said, referring to the April 3 statement by the American embassy in Yerevan that deplored the channel’s removal from the airwaves.
The statement said the decision by a presidentially appointed commission to strip A1+ of its broadcasting frequency “raises serious questions about the future of free and independent media in Armenia” and could “undercut Armenia's efforts to attain its place in the community of democratic nations.”
“In any democratic society, what you have is a marketplace of ideas; voters and the people have to choose among those ideas, those candidates,” Ordway explained on Thursday. “And unless they have information, they can’t make a wise or appropriate choice.”
Ordway argued that A1+, known for its critical coverage of President Robert Kocharian and his government, was “one of the very few television outlets” that enabled opposition groups to present their views to the public. He said the authorities should therefore find a way of restoring the pluralism of the electronic media.
“The loss of the opportunity for the opposition to make its case weakens democracy and is a problem that, in some fashion, is going to have to be addressed and resolved,” the envoy said.
Kocharian, who is widely blamed for the A1+ shutdown, has dismissed U.S. criticism. He has insisted all along that the privately owned channel lost its frequency in a fair and competitive tender mandated by the Armenian law on broadcasting. The National Commission on Television and Radio, which conducted the bidding, has likewise denied any pressure from Kocharian or officials from the presidential administration.
The 9-member commission appointed by Kocharian earlier this year says it gave the tender to the entertainment company Sharm because the latter submitted a stronger bid that "most closely corresponded to the basic standards" set by the law in question.
Speaking during a visit to RFE/RL’s Yerevan bureau, Ordway stressed that the U.S. government has not taken a position on the fairness or legality of the contest and is only worried about political consequences of A1+’s closure.
The A1+’s owners and staff believe that the April 2 tender violated some key provisions of the law. However, their appeal against the commission’s decision was last week rejected by Armenia’s Economic Court.
The TV station has said it will challenge the ruling at the higher-level Court of Appeals. But its director and owner, Mesrop Movsesian, on Thursday expressed skepticism about the success of the effort. Movsesian told reporters that A1+ is preparing to take its case to the European Court on Human Rights in Strasbourg. He said it will also file separate lawsuits against the chairman of the broadcasting commission, Grigor Amalian, and the state-run broadcasting tower in Yerevan which sent A1+ off the air.